I have it on very good authority (from my hair stylist, no less) that the 1920s Louise Brooks-esque bob became a highly desirable coiffure following the release of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001). Not merely inspiring women to chop their hair off, Amélie also drew attention to the importance of relishing the curious details of everyday life: cracking the crust on a crème brûlée, watching François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) at the cinema, collecting discarded images and navigating the city through game play. Cute and life-affirming, filmgoers either fell madly in love or were left with a sickly sweet aftertaste.
I tried to aestheticize things, make them more beautiful than they are in reality. I’m not interested in making a realistic film.
– Jean-Pierre Jeunet
The film simply focuses on the quiet and somewhat alienated existence of French waitress Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tatou). Spurred on by the untimely death of Princess Diana, Amélie begins making tiny changes to the lives of those around her, bringing an unexpected sense of magic to the mundane lives of her friends and random acquaintances. Amélie, meanwhile, continues to be relatively socially isolated and content to dwell within her own fantasies – a coping mechanism that she developed as a young girl. Predominantly set in and around Montmatre, the film’s vision of Paris is filtered through Amélie’s childlike imagination. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel beautifully visualises Amélie’s interior life through a lens of cinephilia by referencing the themes of 1920s poetic realism, the style of 1980s cinéma du look and the sentiments of the 1960s French new wave.
Part of the reason why Amélie struck such a chord with audiences is the film’s strong investment in nostalgia. Despite the contemporary setting, there are few tangible signs of the period in a film where vintage objects and clothing, Instamatic cameras and vinyl records are the norm. However, this nostalgic and romanticised perspective has also been the source of much of the criticism directed at the film. Critics such as Serge Kaganski and Frédéric Bonnaud accused Jeunet of presenting a view of Paris that is the subject of blatant ethnic cleansing, thereby popularising an unrealistic “postcard” image of the city that fails to shed light on the multiplicity of Parisian life. The visual erasure of graffiti, traffic, pollution and other examples of urban decay in postproduction certainly presents a Paris quite different to the one seen in reality. Jeunet’s response to such claims was the rather delightful statement that Kaganski, in particular, was “wallowing in bitterness like a pig in its own shit.”
On this point I have to agree with Jeunet: Amélie is all about fantasy and is therefore not concerned with realistically capturing the social and political extremities of Paris. I doubt that even if I visited every sex shop possible I would meet someone like Nino Quincampois (Mathieu Kassovitz), and that’s part of the joy of watching the film (although a huge disappointment for me). Even though the unfailing whimsy of Amélie is completely implausible, I still love it when she dissolves into a puddle on the floor after she fails to work up the courage to talk to Nino and the scene in which you see her heart pulsating through her clothes. The colours, the effects and everything within the mise en scène indicate artifice, but it is an artificiality that I thoroughly enjoy immersing myself in.